• Mastiffs and spaniels: Gender and nation in the English dog

    Ian F. MacInnes (see profile)
    Early modern studies, Shakespeare
    Item Type:
    animal studies
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    In her book The Animal Estate, Harriet Ritvo reminds us that “animal-related discourse has often functioned as an extended, if unacknowledged metonymy, offering participants a concealed forum for the expression of opinions and worries imported from the human cultural arena.” This paper examines one such metonymy in the early modern period; the animal in question is the English dog. Early modern England was often perceived by other nations to be unique in the variety and number of its dogs, and of these the mastiff and spaniel were most celebrated as products of “English soil.” They accompanied many English ambassadors throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they are mentioned in the annals of the Virginia colony, they were even the only two dogs aboard the Mayflower. The mastiff’s courage, strength and ferocity in bull and bear baiting were appealing to those who wanted to advertise English masculine valor, both to themselves and to foreigners, but mastiffs were also criticized for their roughness, stupidity, and laziness. Spaniels, the quintessential dogs of the English gentry, were antithetical to the mastiff in almost every respect. Often celebrated for their loyalty and devotion, qualities that made them a model of civility and common interest, devoted spaniels could all too often be described as fawning, showing a false sycophantic loyalty or self-destructive attachment. As a gendered pair, the mastiff and spaniel record a significant uneasiness about the English national character, caught between barbarism and excessive civility. It is an uneasiness that combines regional climate, including things such as “air” and “ground,” and more abstract notions of race or breed as they were demonstrated in the animal world as a whole, and it demonstrates that the emerging discourse of nationality in the early modern period was as much concerned with the natural world as it was with human institutions.
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    1 year ago
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